Two State Department contract employees have been fired, and another one reprimanded, for what department officials say were three separate incidents of snooping into Democratic presidential frontrunner Barack Obama's passport files since January. Making the case even more puzzling is the fact that none of this came to the attention of top officials at State until Thursday afternoon, when a spokesman for the department was told about it by none other than a reporter. They had been dealt with at the "office level," said Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management. "I will fully acknowledge that this information should have been passed up the line."
In a conference call Thursday night, spokesman Sean McCormack said the department's initial theory is that this was nothing more than "imprudent curiosity" on the part of employees doing administrative work. Their actions came to light because of computer software, relatively recently installed, that sends out an alert when the files of high-profile individuals are being accessed.
The matter is being turned over to the department's inspector general for further investigation, though it is far from clear what power he has over employees who have already been fired. As of Thursday night, the department had not discussed the matter with Obama himself, but had notified members of his staff of the incidents, and were planning a fuller briefing on Friday. The incidents occurred on Jan. 9, Feb. 21 and March 14; the employees involved in the first two were fired, while the one involved in the most recent one has been disciplined, and an inquiry is continuing.
So far, however, there appear to be more questions than answers. The department refused to name the employees involved, or the contractors they worked for. Nor would they say where these incidents happened. They had no explanation as to why none of the higher-ups in the department had been told about them, nor could they say for certain that these were the only three cases in which Obama's files had been looked at improperly.
Obama's campaign demanded more answers. "This is an outrageous breach of security and privacy, even from an Administration that has shown little regard for either over the last eight years. Our government's duty is to protect the private information of the American people, not use it for political purposes. This is a serious matter that merits a complete investigation, and we demand to know who looked at Senator Obama's passport file, for what purpose, and why it took so long for them to reveal this security breach," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton.
Officials said that there are thousands of contract employees working for the State Department, and that when they are hired, they are given basic background checks for instance, looking at whether they have a police record. The department, however, asks no questions regarding their political backgrounds or activities.
The controversy immediately drew comparison to a 1992 campaign scandal in which the passport file of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, dating back to the 1960s, was suspected of having been tampered with. During that campaign, there was much speculation regarding Clinton's activities and travels around the time of the Vietnam War. A clerk in a records warehouse in suburban Maryland discovered staple holes on copies of his passport applications and became concerned that part of the file was missing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted an inquiry, but found what it said was "no evidence that tampering had occurred."